They came to São
Paulo, Brazil, with hopes of improving their
lives, of earning good wages, and supporting their families
above a mere subsistence level. But, except for a lucky few,
São Paulo’s poor are finding life in this megalopolis a constant
struggle and many are no better off than when they first arrived.
Braun and Eduardo Gentil
In June 1979 when I co-wrote the story below, "São Paulo’s Poor
Survive on Savvy" (along with another young reporter, Eduardo Gentil),
Brazil was still under a military dictatorship, although undergoing an abertura
(opening) and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was a young union leader, struggling
to stay out of jail and keep his embryonic workers’ movement alive. The story
was published in the English language newspaper, The Latin America Daily
Post on June 15. 1979.
Today, a quarter of a
century later, The Latin America Daily Post no longer exists, Eduardo
Gentil is currently the President of VISA do Brasil, I write about Brazil’s
space program, and, of course, Lula is the first working-class President of
But, even under a populist
President, Brazil’s working poor appear to fair no better in their struggle
to survive. A recent notice in the Brazilian press caught my eye; it stated
that Lula’s government had reluctantly agreed to increase the minimum wage
to US$ 87 a month.
In my story below, one
will notice that in 1979, the minimum wage was US$ 90 a month and the working
class poor we interviewed were struggling just to keep their heads above water.
I wonder what has happened
to those folks we interviewed all those many years ago; whether, in fact,
they did survive; and if today’s workers in Brazil harbor the same feelings
of frustration and anger with their plight.
Poor Survive on Savvy
Survival for many of the
millions of working class poor people in São Paulo depends upon a creative
combination of family cooperation, a steady diet of rice and beans, and a
healthy dose of ingenuity.
Immigrants from other,
poorer parts of Brazil form a high percentage of the low wage earners in this
teeming city of 8 million, ironically the country’s booming financial and
Greater São Paulo,
according to researchers, until recently attracted nearly 500,000 immigrants
annually, the majority coming from the rural zones of the north, northeast,
and central regions of Brazil. Many of these immigrants are illiterate. Most,
simply, are unprepared for big city life, lacking the skills necessary for
getting high paying jobs.
They came to São
Paulo with hopes of improving their lives, of earning good wages, and supporting
their families above a mere subsistence level.
But, except for a lucky
few, São Paulo’s poor are finding life in this megalopolis a constant
struggle and many are no better off than when they first arrived.
It is easy for a man like
José Santos Carapia to be overlooked in the sprawling, concrete labyrinth
of São Paulo.
He stands in front of
the gleaming glass doors throughout almost every night, a solitary figure
dressed in a blue uniform with a blue cap, unnoticed beside the massive concrete
building which juts 19 stories up into the sky. He is hardly a pivotal figure
in this complex city’s scheme of things.
Like many of São
Paulo’s eight million people, José migrated to São Paulo from
the northeastern state of Bahia in hopes of finding gainful employment.
After discovering that
there weren’t any high paying jobs awaiting him, he became a porteiro
or doorman, earning US$ 80 a month. That was eight and half years ago.
Today, still at the same
building, José has progressed to the position of night watchman with
a US$ 120 salary. The cost of living increase over the past years has far
outdistanced whatever improvement José might otherwise have attained
in living standard.
José Carapia was
one of a number of São Paulo workers interviewed by the Daily Post
who had incomes ranging from U$ 90 to US$ 300 a month. His salary is slightly
higher than the minimum wage in São Paulo, which was recently readjusted
to US$ 90 (Cr$ 2.260) a month.
About 63 percent of the
Brazilian population earns the minimum wage or less, according to statistics
prepared by the respected labor research organization, the Inter-union Economic,
Social, and Statistical Studies Department (DIEESE).
DIEESE says that the monthly
"bare minimum" living cost per person in São Paulo is on
the order of US$ 120. And, the research unit adds, food expenses alone for
a typical working class family of four in an urban area run to at least $100
The situation for the
low income has deteriorated over the last five years, according to several
Brazilian economists. They blame the cost of living, which has gone up faster
than the increase in wages.
While the cost of living
rose and his salary stagnated, the size of his family kept increasing. When
he arrived he had only three children; today has seven, ranging from eight
months to fourteen years.
In response to the obvious
question of why he hasn’t tried birth control, José affirms that "operations
to avoid having children are too expensive. The pill ruins the woman’s health.
But I am going to stop at seven, no doubt about that."
Carapia is proud in saying
that his wife does not have to work at an outside job. The wife of José
Pereira da Silva, 35 year old shoe salesman in one of the many shops jammed
into the city’s Campos Elíseos business district, also does
not work outside of her home.
But Pereira’s children
have been employed since early ages to help the family survive. Pereira earns
an average of US$ 200 a month, working six days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10
Toil Long Hours
Like their father, José’s
two sons, ages 14 and 15, work as salesman in small shops nearby. Both toil
from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and together they earn a total of US$ 100 a month. In
the evening they go to school.
José must support
his family of six on US$ 300 a month. Of this, US$ 100 goes for rent; US$
25 goes for transportation, to and from work for the father and two sons;
and US$ 100 goes to feed the family on a daily diet of mostly rice and beans.
"Meat is only for
the rich," José says. "So is milk, but I buy a liter of milk
a day because it is important for the children."
José makes a point
of holding on to "at least Cr$ 30 to Cr$ 40 (US$ 1.50 to US$ 2.00) at
the end of the month in case of an emergency," in which his children
might need medication. The amount is just enough to buy one small bottle of
cough spray at a pharmacy.
The plight of having to
survive on a low income in a city like São Paulo is only increased
when one is old. Just ask Amélio Pontes, 76, who stands on a street
selling,or trying to sell religious posters. He wears a well preserved
navy blue beret and an old, though clean and sharply dressed jacket. Pontes
has to take good care of his clothes because he had not been able to buy a
suit "in three years".
He earns US$ 50 a month
if he is "lucky" hawking his posters thirteen hours a day, every
day of the week.
When asked how he manages
to survive, Pontes hesitates before replying: "It’s not worth dirtying
your paper with my story. The only one who can help us is Him, anyway,"
Amélio says in resignation, pointing to the figure of Christ with arms
outstretched on one of the posters he sells.
Bachelors More Confident
Young bachelors like Henrique
do Nascimento can afford to look at life more confidently. At 32, Henrique,
a sturdy caboclo from the Northeast of Brazil, has already worked 17
years as a gas attendant in São Paulo.
In another seven years,
he will be eligible for retirement benefits from the Federal Government Social
Security Fund (INPS). While he waits, Henrique marvels at the girls who happen
by the Shell station located in the classy shopping area of Rua Augusta.
Henrique has an explosive
personality and gripes loudly, but with a touch of humor.
"What saves us are
the tips!" he exclaims. Indeed, the tips amount to almost the equivalent
of his salary, set at US$ 130 a month. Including tips, Henrique’s total earnings
for manning the gas pumps from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., six days a week, is approximately
US$ 275. By the end of a day’s work Henrique is exhausted.
Henrique never plans ahead
or budgets his earnings. Asked about how he spent his money, he seemed surprised
and scratched his head to remember the sums.
"All I know is that
at the end of the month, I’m always broke. Penniless," he laments.
But for Henrique, whatever
his means, there will always be a sum reserved for women and pleasure. Every
weekend, religiously, he measures out US$ 10 for "girlfriends".
Henrique’s loud manner
contrasts sharply with the quite demeanor of Geralda Pereira, 40, a day maid
in a residential high-rise near Paulista Avenue. Geralda is uncomfortable
sitting alone in the huge living room of the family’s apartment where she
works, and she talks hesitantly.
As a day maid, Geralda
earns US$ 150 a month, a good salary for a maid. While many maids still live
at the home of the patroa (housewife), there are those who are married
or have dependents, like Geralda and must live on their own. When she first
came to São Paulo, Geralda worked as a live-in maid in one of the high-income
residential apartments with maid’s quarters.
Geralda now lives with
her mother in a one-room brick house built on a piece of land she bought many
years ago by methodically saving small amounts of money for the seemingly
"I just finished
paying the last one a few months ago," she sighs.
Apart from a stove, two
beds, and some chairs in the house, there is a black and white television
that entertains her ailing mother.
"I must pay another
Cr$ 1.0000 (US$ 50) for the medicine and doctor’s visits for mother’s heart
treatment," she explains.
Geralda’s expenses go
beyond her earnings. Her sister, Maria, a live-in maid, helps out with part
of her salary. On Sundays, the only day of the week she has off, Geralda works
cleaning her house and preparing lunch for the usual family reunion with her
brothers and sisters. She also separates time to go to church.
Like most Paulistas,
Geralda shops for food at the feira, the open-air stands set up along
the streets of São Paulo where fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish are
sold. One of the largest is the Friday feira in front of the Pacaembu
Municipal Stadium. There, Victor Carvinelli, 40, and his brother, set up their
fruit stand every week.
It is a tiring job, requiring
hours of heavy loading and unloading. Victor is up at 3 a.m. so that can get
to the central market before 5 a.m. in order to be assured of his supply of
peaches, papayas, apples, oranges, and grapes, the main fruits in season.
By 7 a.m., the time when
the earliest housewives come for their shopping, Victor is ready to start
selling, with various fruits in full display. By 2 p.m. the feira is
over, the stands are closed and packed away. This routine is repeated six
days a week from Tuesday to Sunday. "On Monday’s, I collapse at home,"
Victor and his brother
might make a net profit of US$ 20 on a good day. Their monthly earnings of
US$ 350 to US$ 400 are divided evenly between them.
"Nowadays, the feira
is not a profitable business," says Victor. "But I’ve been in it
over ten years, and there is nothing else I can do." Ten years ago there
was less competition in the feira and a hard worker could reap significant
profits, according to Victor.
The early good years allowed
Victor to buy his land and build his own house. Now Victor feels bitter that
his business as a feirante is deteriorating.
"I just hope my children
will have the means and sense to go to college," Victor says, as he begins
to wrap papayas with newspaper so they won’t spoil on the long trip home.
São Paulo’s working
class poor who, like Henrique and Amelio Pontes, lack education or political
consciousness, rely on various ways of coming to terms with their situations.
Henrique ponders little
on the larger question of proper income distribution, seeking instead to manage
with what he has and to reap as much enjoyment along the way.
Others, like Amélio
Pontes and José Pereira seem stoically resigned to their fate, receiving
from religion or family the spiritual sustenance that the material world denies.
But José Barreto,
a taxi driver, is hardly a man who is resigned to his position. For the last
eleven years he has worked at three jobs a day, eighteen hours a day for twenty-eight
days a month. Working as a taxi-driver during the day and at two different
fireman jobs at night, José managed to save and borrow enough money
to buy a plot of land upon which he built his own house by hand.
And José plans
to continue working at his present pace until he can save up enough money
to buy another house and rent out the rooms for revenue.
José is angry,
and though this anger has been expressed in the past mainly through a ferocious
pace of work, his words flow quickly if he is asked to comment upon the dilemma
of the working class.
"In Brazil the honest
worker must be embarrassed to admit it. The ones who succeed, those who fill
their pockets, are those who are good at sweet talking their way through and
end up with high paying jobs, whether they are competent or not. This country
is still corrupt. We need somebody in here to straighten things out."
José says intently, his eyes blood-shot.
Frank Dirceu Braun is an award-winning writer and producer, with over 25
years of experience in both print and broadcast journalism. Braun has worked
as an Associate Producer for 60 Minutes, and as an Investigative
Producer for the C.B.S. affiliated stations. Born in Brazil, and raised
in the U.S., Braun is a graduate of UCLA. After graduation, he returned
to Brazil to help launch The Latin America Daily Post, an English
language daily newspaper patterned after Europe’s International Herald
a journalist, Braun has specialized in covering the space programs of the
United States and other nations, for over a decade. Your comments are welcome
© 2004 by Braun Communications.